Pilates Mat Exercise #19: The Neck Pull

Pilates Mat Exercise #19: The Neck Pull

The Neck Pull belongs to a group of Pilates exercises we all love to hate.

Perhaps it's even top of the list.

If you're not a fan of the Roll Up, you'll have nary a kind thought for the Neck Pull.

Promoted as the ‘Move of the Month' at Real Pilates NYC, you've still got the rest of your lives to perfect your Neck Pull. Your stomach and your back will love you for it.

Your ego may hate us…but please, persevere.

The Battle of the Body Parts

My personal journey through the Neck Pull remains vivid in my mind to this day. I first learned this abominable exercise in a Mat class at Excel Pilates in Washington, DC.

You may notice in the photo above I am on a proper studio Mat with a strap and handles.

‘Twas not always so…

Learning the Neck Pull in a Mat class – sans strap – with a tight back and a less-than-stellar Roll Up, this exercise soon became my nemesis. As I began the exercise I watched my lower body in horror. I quickly got stuck and flailed about, my legs lifting into the air.


I was terrified to receive my first Pilates diploma due to my inability to do the Neck Pull on the Mat at all, really. I assumed if I were ever to run into criminals in a dark alley they would demand the Neck Pull in exchange for my life, and my odds of surviving said encounter were slim.

And I'm really out of luck if they also demand I twist.

Worst-case Scenario

For many Pilates practitioners and teachers, there's no torture quite like the Teaser. For me, well, I guess I was much better at cheating on that one.

The Neck Pull didn't offer as many options.

After completing my initial teacher training I was assigned to teach an Intermediate level Mat class at the studio. Gulp. This class of course included the dreaded Neck Pull.

What if I should have to demonstrate the Neck Pull?

I knew this situation was unavoidable.

OMG someone may have a question.

Would I have an answer?

At the time I also had a client, perhaps 20 years my senior, who did the Neck Pull very well. She had issues with other exercises, of course, as we all do. But I would watch her do her 5-6 Neck Pulls and think “I got nothin'…look at her, DOING the exercise.”

As it turned out, an actual friend of mine was in my Mat class and struggling with the Neck Pull.

“I'm not getting it. Can I see you do it?”

Thanks, friend…

…and the sweating begins before the exercise.

That day I learned the degree to which the mind can impose its will upon the body. Who's in control here, anyway?

It was the first successful Neck Pull I had ever done.


I know how to suck it up and get the job done.

No way was I going to choke while my class of 15 people all watched me.


Here's a similar story of Pilates willpower: same exercise, a decade later, Jennifer Kries style.

In recent years I have added the Neck Pull to another group of exercises that, once odious to me, I now love love love with all my heart.

I hope you'll enjoy these 2 short tutorials on the Neck Pull.

What Luck! Even more great info on the Neck Pull from Alisa Wyatt here.

Thank you for watching!

Pilates Mat Exercise #19: The Neck Pull

Save the Date! Saturday February 7, 2015.

I'll be teaching at the California Pilates Center in Oceanside, CA. 

Sign up for my awesome Mat class here!

Let's workout. You know you want to.

The Swan Dive and a Few Surprises (#3 is my favorite)

The Swan Dive and a Few Surprises (#3 is my favorite)The Pilates Method is full of surprises. 14 years into the method as a practitioner and teacher, I still love the giddy surprise of a new exercise. One I've never seen before. Even better is a familiar exercise done in a new-to-me-way.

For example, a few years ago I learned that in addition to the Breast Stroke on the Reformer and its reverse, there also exists a combination, a combo, of the two.

My first thought – There's a combo? – was quickly followed by my next – Oh, of course there is…

It's not like we don't do that in other exercises right?

Swan on the Cadillac

Swan with Push Thru Bar on the Cadillac is a challenging exercise.

The Swan Dive and a Few Surprises (#3 is my favorite)

Very. Challenging.

My body left to its own devices just wants to hang out all over the place in an unsupported arch.


The version with the arms straight has been a great help in connecting my arms into my back and (!) using my stomach.

A fine idea, won't you agree?

The Swan Dive and a Few Surprises (#3 is my favorite)

But let me back up.

Private Lives

Watching Jay Grimes teach private lessons at conferences and intensives is always educational. And frequently full of surprises.

Surprise #1: Swan with Push Thru Bar with no spring!

OMG, whaaaaat?

Surprise #2: Swan with Push Thru Bar with no spring with one arm!

Lordy, Lordy.

Well I have to try that…

Later I mentioned to Jay that it was my first time to see the Swan with no spring and/or with one arm. I loved his answer:

“You should try it. It would be good for you.”

Okay, let's get out my loooong list of exercises that are good for me and add it to the list…

But man, that guy is always right.

I don't know what I don't know

I took Jay's advice and began to include Swan with Push Thru Bar, the 2-arm and 1-arm versions after my daily mat workout. This exercise proved to be truly magical. Without that enabling spring, the exercise essentially incapacitated my arms and shoulders.

I had to find the right muscles (the stomach, back and lower body) to even complete the exercise at all. With 2 arms. The one-arm version was even more fantastic and provided so much feedback as to what was (or was not) going on on each side.

Several months pass…

Did I mention that I like a challenge?

What I didn't know as I continued to practice Swan with the Push Thru bar each day was that it was also helping my Swan Dive.

Surprise #3!

Mind you – it's not really a surprise, per se, that the Swan on the Cadillac helped me with my Swan Dive on the Mat.

I hear you. I know the apparatus provides assistance to better your Mat exercises. Yes. It's the whole premise behind the full studio system of the Pilates Method. I completely agree.

But sometimes you don't know it's happening to you until it does.

Way back last year in my post on the Rocking exercise I intimated that the Swan Dive, technically a rocking exercise, deserved its own special post.

Well friends, it's time.

Let's Dive in

The Swan Dive and a Few Surprises (#3 is my favorite)

Swan Dive is the ultimate version of the Swan exercise done on the Mat. Once you understand that the rocking action must be generated from the stomach, it still may take years to create a long line of the body without a break in the middle.

A long line! Yes, our old friend length to the rescue – AGAIN.

And there's no time to micromanage in the Swan Dive, one must simply prepare and go for it…grrr….

Robbed of the ability to examine one can only reflect afterwards. Good news and bad news. Bad news for me, good news for the Pilates Method and moving. Gotta suck it up, I get it.

My standby method to execute the Swan Dive?

Hurl myself at the mat with a will of iron.

A hurl and a fling, actually…in succession. Hurl, fling…hurl, fling…hurl, fling…am I diving yet?

Oh you have to start somewhere.

I can dive with a little help from my friends

I am a visual learner. More often than not I've got an image in my head of what I believe is happening during the exercise.

However, sometimes my mind gets the wrong idea.


Picked up from an old correction that's no longer valid, or even the name of the exercise – Swan Dive – my mind is not quite on the right track. As I worked to refine my signature Swan Hurl, I happened to see my lovely colleague and classmate Samantha have her lesson on the Mat.

Samantha is a different body type than I am – she has more flexibility in places that I have stiffness, so it was wonderful to see what rhythms and shapes are possible during the Swan Dive, that I had not happened upon, shall we say…

My tactic was to hurl and use force to complete the exercise, while Samantha had such a light and delicate approach to the exercise that made it look effortless. And cute. And bouncy. And for God's sake it looks like a rocking exercise.

The Swan Dive and a Few Surprises (#3 is my favorite)

Oh, that's what I'm trying to do…

I should also mention that I'm a really good mimic.

So for a while I just pretended I was Samantha.

No. More. Hurling.

Another way I found to get me out of the hurling habit was to use the Spine Corrector. If you've not tried the Swan Dive perched on the crest of the Spine Corrector, hang on to your powerhouse. Nothing will tell you more quickly if you have control of your own destiny than an impending face-plant on the Mat.

The Swan Dive and a Few Surprises (#3 is my favorite)

As you find the length (where have I heard that before?) atop the Spine Corrector you will rid yourself of any forceful habits. It simply won't work here. The Spine Corrector Swan will give you a more long and reaching rhythm for the exercise that you can then carry to the Mat.

The Shape of All Things Pilates

In a series of posts on Pilatesology I mention that the Barrels can be used to find the shape of the upper back that you'll need for the Swan on the Mat.

The Swan Dive and a Few Surprises (#3 is my favorite)

While this is true, and helpful, I found out exactly how much Swan with Push Thru Bar was providing the same assistance in a different way.

One day it occurred to me mid-Swan on the Mat that I could replicate the shape that the angle of the Push Thru Bar was teaching me. Suddenly it was not as mysterious a position. My body remembered. Surprise!

You gotta love Pilates. So versatile. A place for everything and everything in its place.

The Swan Dive and a Few Surprises (#3 is my favorite)

This is my favorite spectator Swan Dive, Pilates bestie extraordinaire, Amy Kellow.

If you've not been to her Classical Pilates Convention, you don't know what kind of fantastic Pilates geek-fest you are missing. Plus lots of opportunity to perfect your Swan Dive!

Thanks so much Amy, Samantha and of course the cameo appearance of Karen Frischmann for your help with this post (and with my Swan Dive).

Dive in! Share your strategies and successes in a comment below.

On the Order of the Pilates Mat Exercises…

On the Order of the Pilates Mat Exercises...


Click here for a list of all the exercises in this post!

I find it hard to imagine the Pilates Mat exercises without Joe Pilates' structure. As someone who enjoys following a good rule or two, the structure and prescribed order of the exercises have always appealed to me.

Sans Joe's order my focus would wane as I deliberated on which exercise to do next. I would surely omit an exercise or two that I don't like, much to my own detriment. We need them all, really.

What we hear from Joe on the subject:

Study carefully. Do not sacrifice knowledge to speed in building your solid exercise regime on the foundation of Contrology. Follow instructions exactly as indicated down to the very smallest detail. There IS a reason!

Joe Pilates toiled his entire lifetime of 80+ years indefatigably tinkering with and perfecting his method.

Jay Grimes insists no detail was left to chance or done by accident in the entire body of Pilates' work.

Like an actor mining his script for clues to construct the heart and soul of a character I feel it's my job as a Pilates instructor to look closely at the evidence and investigate fully with body and mind.

Why the Corkscrew now?

Or in an especially challenging exercise that maybe I don't like, why must I slow my steady pace to the Teaser with the Side Kick Series?

It is my belief that by using Joe's set order of the exercises on both the Mat and the Reformer I can experience in 2013 the full genius of Joe Pilates who died in 1967.

So my workouts include a lot of asking questions – investigating internally what the previous exercise has provided as a help for the bear of an exercise I must now tackle – and on a good day, the occasional revelation.


If you learn one new thing every day you will be a genius.


Thanks Romana, I need a good workout that will make me – albeit briefly – a genius.

Romana Kryzanowska!

I should mention that the order I learned from Romana's Pilates differs somewhat from Joe's original order. Circa late 1990s I am told Romana moved a few things around and added the mermaid to the Mat. The Side Bend was taken out around then too. I can't speculate on why she felt these changes to be necessary, but she is, of course, Romana.

Now my study of the Pilates Method focuses exclusively on the order Joe lays out for us.

So I thought I would articulate why I think the Mat exercises are arranged in the order presented in JP's Return to Life Through Contrology.  It will be a good exercise to attempt this ‘out loud', shall we say, and hopefully I just might learn something.

Who doesn't want to be a genius?

Please note that this examination is solely about the order and the exercises themselves…not about who should be doing them or if one is ready to do them, etc… That's a subject for another post. I'll be lucky if I can finish this one 🙂

My experience of the Pilates exercises in my own body will of course differ from every other person. But Joe Pilates has a way of distilling us into the humanity that we are: the same body systems and parts that probably need a similar kind of maintenance.

Am I the only sway-backed, blogger with a weaker side out there?


The Hundred

No matter how much you dislike this exercise, you cannot dispute its effectiveness as a warmup. It gets the blood and the air moving. Boom. You have arrived.

The Roll Up, The Roll Over, Single Leg Circles

These 3 exercises I am grouping together as they are the first stretches of your entire system that you get in the Mat repertoire. The Roll Up gives you a top-to-toe stretch of the entire back of the body, The Roll Over gives the opposite – a toe-to-top stretch of the very same thing. The Single Leg Circles is my favorite ‘stomach exercise in disguise' exercise and I believe it is a stretch of the entire system again now one side at a time…in any case, it's not really about your leg. We are a human! Not just a leg.

After all these initial stretches of our system – and hang on, cause they're gonna happen for a while, we are only 4 exercises in and still climbing in our intensity – we get something nice:

Roll Like a Ball

A nice massage of all the stuff we just stretched out. Now back to work.

Single Leg Pull and Double Leg Pull

These are the 2 exercises in the famed “Series of 5” that come from Joe Pilates. Romana added the other 3 (to which Jay Grimes says: “Because they're good”) in my understanding because she saw too many poochy bellies and Romana did not like poochy bellies.

And they are good. They never disappoint.

Single Leg Pull and Double Leg Pull are in my opinion ‘wind-relieving' exercises to help to stimulate digestion and ultimately rid the body of toxins. They are a great strengthener of the entire trunk and the deep breaths of the Double Leg Pull again lead to a stretch and a wringing out of the entire system: stretch out and lengthen, and then fold up completely. Just what we need to be doing.


Spine Stretch Forward

We now return to the stretching out of the entire system in a seated position, lengthening in both a Rounded and Tall position. I know, don't forget about the Tall. It's not easy to sit up tall. We are preparing for another massage of the entire system which will come next and take Roll Like a Ball to a whole new level.

The Rocker with Open Legs

A more challenging massage – if you can get it – requiring even more length along the entire back of the body. Oh and some balance and control aspects upping the ante as well.

The Corkscrew and The Saw

These 2 exercises I combine as they are the same exercise for both the lower and upper body. Stretching the back of the body in a new way, along the sides and with rotation. In a sense I feel that every exercise up to and including the Saw is warming up, stretching out and preparing the back of the body for the next 3 extension exercises. Soon the back must fight to keep it's length and integrity while it's made to do some hard work.

The Swan Dive, Single Leg Kicks and Double Leg Kicks

Now we have arrived at the extension exercises – a lot of tough work for the back – but now it's all ready to go, thanks to the previous 11-14 exercises. The Swan Dive is a big full move to get the juices flowing, followed by the Single Leg Kicks and Double Leg Kicks which aid in the stretching of the front of the lower body – and furthermore strengthen the buttocks and hamstrings for the tasks ahead.

Thigh Stretch

This is the first ‘task ahead' for which you strengthened the buttocks and entire lower body in the previous 3 exercises. Thigh Stretch is a hard exercise to do well and the name pretty much says it all.

The Neck Pull

Now we return to where we started with the Roll Up, but some rules have changed: Legs apart and arms all tied up behind the head. I see the Neck Pull as a counter stretch after the extension exercises as well as a test of the stability of the lower body which was strengthened with the Single and Double Leg Kicks and Thigh Stretch.

High Scissors, High Bicycle and Shoulder Bridge

An advancement of the extension exercises, these 3 exercises build upon what was started with the Single and Double Leg Kicks. Now the front of the entire body gets a stretch, but it's gonna cost you. Try not to topple over. Aren't you glad you got in all that strengthening of the upper stomach earlier in the workout?

The use of the seat and the back of the lower body will also be a help in the exercises that follow.

Spine Twist and Jackknife

These 2 exercises prepare the sides of the body and the entire back line of the body for the challenge of the Side Kick Series. In the Spine Twist the back is striving to stay tall in a seated position, nearly as hard a feat as staying ‘tall' and not getting lounge-y when you lie on your side for the Side Kicks.


No sexy on the Beach!   Romana Kryzanowska


The Jackknife warms up the entire lower body system in a straightforward way before you get to do it one side at a time in the Side Kick Series. Can you connect your lower body into the trunk? Great!

Now can you do it one side at a time?

Side Kick Series

Time for some multitasking! You must control one side as an anchor while you control the other side as it moves in various patterns. So much to keep track of. Ready? Switch!

The Teaser and the Hip Twist (Hip Circles)

Lower Body? Check.

Remember way back at the top of the workout from the Roll up to the Spine Stretch and Rocker with Open Legs when we lengthened the Upper Body primarily? Good.

Let's put it together with the lower body skills you learned in all the exercises thus far.

It's the Teaser and it's most infamous variation, The Hip Twist (Hip Circles). Basically these 2 exercises are a lengthening and stretching of the entire system, including a challenging spin at the end. Another shot at multitasking and a concept prevalent (relentless) throughout the Pilates system: Something anchoring combined with something else moving.

Not the first or last time this is gonna cross our paths, why aren't we used to it by now?


And now we bend the other way…oh and let's do it one side at a time while we're at it, cause we've been here before, right?

Leg Pull and Leg Pull Front

We've done our stretches of the front of the body before we get to this exercise, but now there's a little more at stake. Gone is the luxury of lying down, and my God, we still have to work each side separately.

Joe Pilates, have you no mercy??!

Side Kicks Kneeling

Evidently the answer to our plea is a big fat NO in the form of the Side Kicks Kneeling.

JP could not be reached for comment. Frownie face…

So we had our fun lying down in the Side Kick Series for some sexy on the beach…well evidently there is more to be had now that we'll be doing the same work of the lower body AGAIN and we have to hold ourselves up while we do it. Gaaawwwwd, FINE!

The Side Bend

As much as I personally struggle with this exercise, it is a nice big stretch like a cat. Joe Pilates' version of a treat after all that precedes it. A big wringing out of the sides that you just trashed in the Side Kicks Kneeling. And some time to breathe and collect yourselves for the big finish.

Boomerang, Seal, Crab

Initially I did not learn these exercises in this order. So 3 rolling exercises in a row was news to me. But I have come to adore it and I'm gonna tell you why. Pilates builds integrity in motion and 3 rolling exercises in a row really puts that to the test. Each of the 3 has their own rhythm and shape to the body. In the midst of tackling these exercises you can clearly see when you are a rolling stone and when you're not. By the time you get to The Crab you can challenge yourself to be a solid rolling machine.

The Rocking

The ultimate in front-of-the-body stretching and why not take a cue from the previous rolling exercises and rock around on the front of you for a while? You'll need all that strength of the back and buttocks for the next exercises anyway.

Control Balance

Is it not the ultimate goal? Control. And what do you have when you are in control? Balance. I think of this exercise as an extremely challenging lower body exercise. You are working against gravity, your greatest foe in the workout, and odds are in its favor. Reminiscent of The Hundred, Double Leg Pull (of course) and the Jackknife amongst others, this exercise is clearly all those exercises put together and more.

The Push Ups

I am sure Joe Pilates did not invent the Push Up, but at the end of the workout it is a perfect example of stretch and strength and control. You must roll down and place your hands onto the mat in front of your feet, you must take 4 precise steps out with your hands to your push up position and you must lower and lift the entire weight of your body several times.

Oh, and then you've got to walk back in, hands to feet, roll yourself up and do it all over again.


You can say what Pilates is in 3 words: stretch with strength and control. And the control part is the most important because that makes you use your mind.   Romana Kryzanowska

Another zinger from JP:

On the Order of the Pilates Mat Exercises...

Love the order of the exercises? Share your thoughts in a comment below.

Not a fan of the order? I'd love to hear about that too.

Really prefer the Reformer? Check out this post.

What are the Benefits of a Daily Pilates Mat Workout?

BONUS VIDEO BLOG: Join me for just a few minutes every day and Return to Life!

What are the Benefits of a Daily Pilates Mat Workout?

Joe Pilates intended his mat exercises to be done as homework.

Your maintenance plan.

30 minutes to return you to the “zest and pleasure” of living!

But first, we must begin.

With a studio in my home, doing my own workout often feels like I am still working…Or maybe I have taught so many clients in a day that I am convinced I had a workout as well?

Ultimately the challenge becomes about just lying down on the Mat/Reformer/Cadillac.

Oh it can be daunting…

What are the Benefits of a Daily Pilates Mat Workout?So I teamed up with my husband (as fate would have it, also named Joe) and embarked on a daily mat practice.

Inspired by Benjamin Degenhardt’s March MATness, our plan was to do at least a few exercises every morning: 10 minutes at the bare minimum and a bit more or even the entire Mat if time permitted.

10 minutes is the least that I can do for my optimum health.

It’s my body.

Hopefully I'm gonna have it for a while, right? It behooves me to care for it so it will run strong for life!

Pilates is my lifetime warrantee.

I would also like to note that a few times each week Joe is scheduled to begin work at 6am. So that would mean some 5am Pilates for me.

Was I up to the challenge?

Was I up?

To be frank, I have never been a morning exerciser. It’s all about the sleeping in for me and then squeezing in a workout between clients. Which I have to admit, rarely happens…

So we began in July this year. It is now mid-October and we have maybe missed a handful of days – Sunday, the hardest day sometimes. A day of rest, we rationalized. It’s okay, I thought, Sandy Shimoda will kick my ass on Monday, so I’m safe.

Sorry, no photos of the 5am workouts…remember, Pilates isn't pretty…

But please, PLEASE!! What are the exciting results???

  • Joe recently announced for the second time since our first workout that all nagging “injuries” he would feel now and then, have vanished.

And that’s a big statement coming from him. When you are married to a Pilates teacher, we of course offer much more counsel than one might desire.

“You know, Pilates could help you with that.”

“There’s an exercise for that.”

“Blah, blah, Pilates…blah blah blah.”

All of which is true, of course, but coming from one’s spouse…well, you know how that goes…

  • The trajectory of my own Pilates workout remains ever onward and upward. No sliding back if you do the mat (at least a bit of it) EVERY day.

You can get even more out of your weekly lessons when you arrive strong and focused.

  • I keep myself strong to teach my clients. Pushing and pulling and standing all day long is harder than you think… or harder than I think it is.

It is a constant challenge to take care of my own body as I give full energy to others.

  • My back no longer feels stiff after hours spent on my laptop writing these posts 🙂 

Time flies when you are blogging…!

  • Any insecurity about how to reconcile my appetite (insatiable) with staying fit has disappeared as well. I feel fabulous and believe that I look stunning as well. Mentally my daily Pilates workout has empowered me to be confident in my own skin. Not an easy feat.

One more Series of 5, please…

  • I feel weird to have a morning without the Mat actually…

Why not cultivate a good habit?

Bonus video blog: 7 ways to feel fantastic in 5 minutes.

Join me!

Use these 7 exercises as a place to begin. The entirety of the Mat may seem too much at first, especially if you would like to introduce a friend or family member to a daily Pilates workout.

Start simply and build on your success day by day. Use the video at first. Then see if you can learn them and they’ll be YOURS for life!!

Share your thoughts and progress in a comment below.

Thank you for reading…and for doing your Mat!



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